Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Bitchy Baker: A Pie Crust Tutorial

Yesterday on Facebook I posted a picture of some individual apple pies I had made with the statement, "Fun fact: I make a killer pie crust." Several people asked for a recipe (read: told me to put my money where my mouth is), and because I live to serve, I have created, for your edification, a Pie Crust Tutorial.

First, a word about pie crusts. Nearly everyone I know relies upon the store-bought, pre-made versions, and these are, in my opinion, a waste of money. And they taste horrible. At least they did when they first came on the market, back when I was a teenager - those Pillsbury ones you can get next to the canned biscuits and cookie dough. My mother had always made her own pie crust and the first time she used one of those, I could immediately tell the difference. It tasted like chemicals. They may have improved since then, but I have precious little in my life to be sanctimonious about, so there will be no pre-made, factory-processed pie crusts in this house.

The reason, it seems, that people don't make their own is that it tends to turn out like cardboard. But with a little understanding of how the ingredients work, you can avoid this quite easily. There are two main mistakes that people make that result in cardboard pie crust: overworking the dough, and using ingredients that are too warm.

Pie crust is essentially flour, butter, salt, and water. Some people add a bit of sugar, but I don't. Flour, as we know, contains gluten, which is a type of protein. When flour is mixed with a liquid to form a dough, and that dough is stirred or kneaded, those proteins form long chains, which are what gives the dough structure and allows it to hold together. You want to develop these chains when you make bread, so you get a nice chewy crust and the loaf doesn't fall in the oven. But with pie crust, not so much. Pie crust needs to be more tender than strong, so you have to be cautious about how you mix it.

Unlike with cookies, cakes, and other baked goods that involve butter, you do not want to soften the butter or bring it to room temperature before adding it to the flour. In fact, you want it as cold as you can get it and still be able to cut through it. This is because you want to end up with discrete bits of butter distributed throughout the dough. These bits will expand when they bake, making the crust flaky. To help keep the butter from melting, the water you use should be ice cold as well. In fact, if it's a hot day, I'll chill all the ingredients and the workbowl before I start.

Killer Pie Crust (makes enough for a double crust pie or two single crust pies. Recipe can be exactly halved to make one single crust):


2 and 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour. Make sure it is all-purpose and not bread flour. Or pastry flour is good too. Just not bread flour.

2 sticks of unsalted butter...

...cut into pat-sized pieces:

1/2 to 1 teaspoon of salt, depending on how salty you like it. I tend to eyeball it:


 You won't use nearly this much water, but I like to use an easy-pour container and lots of ice to get it nice and chilly.

Now, for the way I do this, you will need a food processor. This makes the whole process easier and faster, but it can be done manually and I'll include instructions in parentheses for that.

1. Place your flour, salt, and butter in the work bowl of the food processor:

 2. Secure the lid and PULSE (do not just let it run - use the pulse and do very quick, short pulses) until the butter has broken up into bits the size of small peas. A few may be larger, a few smaller, but for the most part, you want to still be able to see the bits of butter. This was about 13 pulses, but your processor may take more or less, so stop and check every few pulses:

(To do this by hand, use a pastry cutter or two knives to chop up the butter until you have the right size pieces. If it takes too long, or you need to stop for a fortifying cocktail, put the bowl in the fridge or freezer while you rejuvenate.)

3. Using the feed tube of the processor, pour in about a tablespoon of ice water. Pulse once or twice.

Now comes the tricky part. The amount of water you use will vary, depending on various factors, so it can end up being anywhere from a few tablespoons to a half cup or more. You have to test it. Here's how:

4. After adding the water and pulsing, open the lid and grab a small handful of the mixture and squeeze it in your hand. Does it come together into a little doughy ball, or does it crumble? If it crumbles, you need to replace the lid, add some more water, pulse a couple more times, and re-test it. As soon as you can get it to hold together in your hand, STOP! You are done!

(By hand, get a nice big fork and put your ice water into a clean spray bottle. Spray the ice water over the flour/butter mixture several times and then quickly and lightly mix, like you were fluffing a bowl of rice. Don't stir like you're trying to mix cake batter. Fluff. Fold. Imagine sprightly fairies dancing upon the dew-sparkled daisies or something. Now do the squeeze test, and repeat until you get the dough to hold together as above. At this point, the directions are the same, so no more parenthetical hand-holding for you!)

5. To keep from overworking the dough at this point, take two longish pieces of plastic wrap and lay them across each  other perpendicularly, like so:

Dump the contents of the work bowl onto the middle of the wrap. Don't freak because it still looks crumbly. If you start to freak, go see your buddy who's doing it by hand. She made cocktails.

Using the sides of the pastic wrap, bring the dough together into a rough disc shape and press together to form your dough. You can use your bare hands, but using the wrap kind of like a barrier just keeps you cleaner. You are not kneading it, just pressing the moist bits together. Seriously. Don't go all apeshit now, when you're almost done:

 6. Once it's fairly even, cover it all with the wrap and refrigerate for at least 1/2 an hour before rolling. If you refrigerate it longer, you may have to let it warm up jut a bit before you can roll it out. But keep an eye on it and start rolling as soon as you can, so that it doesn't warm up too much. Also, watch out for dough bandits:

My mom always rolled hers out between two pieces of waxed paper, but that never worked well for me. I use a big pastry board and a flour shaker that gives me a good, but light, coating of flour, and as long as I work pretty fast, I never have trouble with sticking, but that may be from 20-plus years of practice.

It may take a few tries to get right, because you kind of have to learn to recognize the look and feel you are going for. But if you keep in mind that you are trying to avoid overworking it, and you keep your butter and water nice and cold, you'll be well on your way.

If you make it through the process successfully and sober enough to take a picture, send me a photo of what you make and I'll post it on Facebook. We'll make a Pie Crust Hall of Fame. It'll be just like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but with less Bono.

Monday, October 25, 2010

9 out of 10 zombies prefer mismatched bedding

So, I have three out of five Dresden plates finished for the table runner:

I consider this a huge victory in my quest to Never, Ever, EVER Take a Class, because even though I have had technical problems, I still think they are turning out damn fine. Originally, the center circle was to be the same as the background fabric, but I discovered that the other materials showed through too much, and it looked sloppy. So I ripped that out and tried to put a little circle of batting under it, but that didn't go well either, and ultimately I went for the dark circle and I think I like it.

I have been using Roxanne's Glue Baste-It to hold the pieces on so they won't shift around while I am sewing, and this was the product recommended by my sister and by this Goddess of Applique, and I like it, except that it splooges out of the needle applicator whether I want it to or not. Lots of people on Facebook said that they have trouble with the needle clogging, but I haven't had that trouble at all. I make sure to pull that squeeze bottle open to suck the glue back down inside, and then quickly cap it before I let go, and so far that has kept my needle from clogging.

I tend to look at my own work with such a critical eye, it's hard to step back and really see what I've done. I was working on one of these yesterday when our next door neighbor's little boy came over to look at the pumpkins on our front stoop. She quickly followed because she's always worried that he's bothering us (which he never is) and I ran out to tell her that he could come look at our Halloween decorations anytime he wanted. I still had the project in my hand, and she spotted it. Her eyes got all big and she went. "OH MY GOD THAT IS AMAZING." Now, of course, she doesn't sew or do anything creative or crafty—not even cooking—and so it will look better to her than to, say, one of you. But isn't that why I started quilting in the first place? To make stuff for people who don't know any better and will be impressed no matter what lousy shit I give them?

I have been enjoying my new bed, but it is rather firm. Not like sleeping on the pavement firm, but like doctor's waiting room chair firm. If you push down hard enough, you can make a depression, but a supine individual, even one my size, doesn't create enough weight at any one point to make a dent. I even have a foam pillowtop AND a featherbed on top of the foundation cushions/mattress, and I still feel like I'm on a slightly cushy board. I have been sleeping much better and I wake up very alert, so it must have advantages, but I haven't been able to get the pillows just right, so I bought a new pillow this weekend and decided that it needed a custom pillowcase, one that matches NOTHING. Nothing in the room, nothing on the bed. Nothing.

I've had that Riley Blake fabric for a while and finally decided to rip into it. It might have looked better if I had used the fabric with the white background as the main fabric, but I like it this way, too. Now I have to make an orange quilt to go with it. because it looks kinda stupid with the blue quilt my sister made. Not that anyone's looking at my bed and thinking, "She put THAT quilt with THAT pillowcase? Was she high? Or was she forced to do it at knifepoint?" Only I'm thinking that.

Oh, and Princess Devon is thinking that, too. She's very particular about bedding. The Horrifying Zombie, however, doesn't give a fuck.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Another annoying, non-quilty post

I have not been quilting or sewing at all in the past week or so because I am on deadline and have two articles for QH to complete. But I can't sit at the computer all day (well, I can, and I often do, but I really shouldn't), so I try to distract myself and move around a bit by  cleaning something. Our laundry room and a storage area in the basement tend to get piled up with junk that needs to be sorted and thrown out or donated, so I headed there yesterday. In rifling through several boxes, I discovered all my letters from my college boyfriend. I didn't think I had kept them, assumed I had tossed them out at some point, but there they all were, tied together with a red ribbon that had once adorned a small bouquet of flowers he had given me.

Naturally, I sat down and read them all, and cried so much that I was unable and unwilling to watch any of the Chilean mine rescue later that day. Emotions were too close to the surface, and each miner that arose from the depths would have sent me into more convulsive tears. I do go on sometimes.

Reading them and remembering him made me sorry that we lost touch so long ago, though I know we really needed to in order to completely let go of each other. It would be nice to know how he's doing, where he's working, if he has kids now. It made me wonder what would happen if I were to discover him on Facebook one day, an utter impossibility since he - and I am still certain of this aspect of his personality even 20 years later - would never spend a moment of time on a computer that wasn't required of his work or in some other way vital to his physical survival.

And, I'm glad of that, because were he to somehow appear there, I would be helpless against my own compulsion to do the Facebook Apology/Confessional thing. I'm sure there's a common name for it. Where you discover someone from long ago on FB and you have some unresolved thing in your past with them and you can't be content to just friend them and read the occasional status update. No, you have to do the private message, "Hey, remember when I totally dicked you around that one time? Boy was I a bitch, or what? So sorry! Forgivsies?" I have been on both ends of this, so I understand the compulsion to do it, and I also understand how uncomfortable it can make the person on the other end. It's truly just as well that he's a techno-phobe.

Naturally, a walk down College Boyfriend Memory Lane led to walks along High School Boyfriend Boulevard and the Incidental Boyfriend Pathway. My romantic history can be divided into three main relationships and about five minor ones. The main ones are predictable:

1. The High School Boyfriend. He was an aspiring poet, and used to bind all his poetry in his dad's print shop and leave it in the school library for anyone who was so inclined to read. He was tall and really skinny and had terrible acne and ended up on Accutane to control it. He took me to prom, and then he attended the Pennsylvania Governor's School of the Arts that following summer. He wasn't much interested in me after he returned - it was apparently one of those "you just can't understand me anymore; I'VE CHANGED - CAN'T YOU SEE I'VE CHANGED" kind of experiences. Naturally, I was bereft.

2. The College Boyfriend. Sweet, unassuming boy meets tries-to-look-and-act-intimidating-but-is-really-insecure girl and they fall in love. They are totally wrong for each other and break up a lot, but they both mean well. Remind me to someday tell you the story of our Camping Trip From Hell. It's very funny and involves cops.

3. The "Adult" Boyfriend. I say "adult" in quotation marks, because I was still little more than a kid when I started dating him. I broke up with him once because he was such an annoying, self-involved little turd. Then, several months later, after I had returned to and broken up with the College Boyfriend one last time, he confessed his love for me and his sincere desire to no longer be an annoying, self-involved little turd. And he meant it. Three years later, I married him.

Then there were the Incidentals, who were, sadly, just kind of little stops in between the Big Three. Some of them I wish I had stayed with longer. One of them I always felt should have been The College Boyfriend, but he had a girlfriend Back Home, to whom he was devoted, and despite the depths of his affections for me, he was unswervingly loyal to her. We tried hard to be friends for many years, but it turns out to be incredibly difficult to be friends with someone you are in love with and whom you cannot have. Ever. Stupid loyalty.

Oh! And then there was the in-between-breaking-up-with-College-Boyfriend-and-starting-to-date-the-Adult-Boyfriend-boyfriend. Except I didn't want him to be my boyfriend. I wanted him to get in my bed and shut up. And one day, as we were walking back from a party (that was at my future Adult Boyfriend's house!), he decided we needed to have A Talk, and he told me he didn't want to be my boyfriend (because, apparently, our walk indicated to him that I was Looking for a Relationship, when in reality it indicated that I Wanted to Get Laid) and I responded that, dude, I don't want you to be my boyfriend, and then he got all upset because I didn't want him to be my boyfriend, and I finally just threw up my hands and went home alone. Never saw him again.

He's on Facebook. He and David went to graduate school together. I have not friended him. (And remind me to tell you the story of how my future husband crashed my first date with him. It is very funny, and involves beer.)

So, yeah. that's what happens when you are 41 and you stumble across a ribbon-festooned packet of old love letters. Lots of silly navel-gazing. But I think it's fun to go back over all those old loves and lovers, just because I'm so happy about where I ended up, and even though I have regrets about certain events, I kind of have to believe that everything went the way it was supposed to because it led me here. I'm glad I have a romantic history, however limited, to sit back and remember. And I'm glad that remembering doesn't make me wistful or wish that I was back there with one of them instead of here, now.

In fact, it just makes me look forward to seeing David when he comes home tonight.






Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Brief History of Quilting

My article from the April/May issue of Quilter's Home, "A Brief History of Quilting," is now available for viewing or downloading here. This is one of my favorite pieces, so if you haven't been reading QH, check it out and see what you're missing!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Nocturnal admissions

This morning I should have been driving across the Chesapeake Bay bridge to see Kelley at Sunporch Quilts about quilting George. I met up with Kelley at the Annapolis Quilt Guild show back in June and I got to see some of her work on display there (one quilt ribboned, I believe). But instead I am sitting around and waiting for the Ikea delivery truck to show up with my new sofa bed, which will be installed in my sewing room. Because, you see, I need a place to sleep. Alone. That's right, alone. I realize I am about to tread into some very dangerous waters here, but I might as well get it over with.

I do not sleep with my husband.

I can already hear a certain number of people gasping in horror, and another percentage of those are already clutching their pearls and priming their index fingers to start typing a very sanctimonious comment about how they have not slept apart from their beloveds a single night in their entire marriage (except for that time he got busted for pot in Japan) and how happy they have been to not have a decent night's sleep in thirty years because what's a little rest compared to the contentment engendered by spending the night with your face lodged in someone's hairy armpit? Granted, that's hard to argue with; nevertheless I learned after many years of terrible sleep and increasing crankiness that sleeping apart was better for our marriage than sleeping together.

I never liked sharing a bed with another person; I don't even like sleeping in the same room with someone else. I am so particular about how I sleep, that someone else's movements and noises just drive me batshit insane. David went through a period of time in the year before I got pregnant with Harper where he would kick his leg in this convulsive way every 2 minutes or so throughout the night. It was so startling each time, and so disruptive, that eventually I ended up on sleeping medication in order to get through it. The leg kicking thing went away as mysteriously as it had appeared, but since then his snoring has gotten worse as well as his very animated nighttime conversations. He's such a taciturn man in the daytime - I guess he gets it all out of his system while he's sleeping.

For a while we solved the problem by taking turns sleeping on the couch, but then Harper graduated to a big bed and was constitutionally incapable of sleeping on her own. And here is another of those issues that gets people all ready to hop up on their high horse and tell me either that they are STILL sleeping with their children (who are now in college) and that it has made their precious pumpkins secure and loving individuals who will never, ever get laid, or that their children have always slept alone, in a pit, chained to the wall and this has made them secure and fiercely independent individuals who now use fantasies of matricide to lull themselves to sleep.

 I have slept with my kids since Harper was 2 years old, so for about 5 years now.

Believe it or not, my marriage is solid, and my kids are awesome, and despite the musical beds, everyone is pretty content. Except me. I had just managed to get Harper to start sleeping in her own bed, by herself, with her sister in the crib next to her, when Devon graduated to a big bed. She proved just as incapable of sleeping on her own as Harper, and when Harper saw the concessions I was willing to make to help Devon get to sleep, she knew she had me back in her clutches. Their bedroom was moved to the playroom, which has a couch, and I brought peace to the household by sleeping on that couch every night, while David slept in the bed in the master bedroom upstairs. On Friday and Saturday nights, when he doesn't have to go to work the next day and the kids don't have to get ready for school, we switch.

My BP meds have been causing sleep problems, among other things, and so I have been longing to have my own room to sleep in. My sewing/writing room is big enough, and with just a bit of furniture rearranging we could fit a bed or a daybed or, as we finally decided on, a sofa bed. Devon is getting older and less dependent on me to be there all night. We received a small windfall recently and decided that a place for me to sleep was at the top of the list of things to spend it on. Thus Ikea, and today's delivery.

In quilting news, I am making pointy Dresden plates:

This is one of five that will go on a table runner for my sister-in-law. The fabric is from the Aster Manor FQ bundle that my QH editors gave me, and the pattern comes from the Moda bakeshop. I found the instructions less than stellar, but it appears that I did everything right despite that. I actually kept the girls up a wee bit past their bedtime so that I could finish this one, and when I showed it to them they burst into applause. Even David was impressed and usually anything with a flower print makes him squirmy and uncomfortable.

So now that I'm essentially moving into my office, I wonder how long it will be before I decide to install a kitchenette and just live in here full time. Will sleeping in my sewing room make me dream of quilts? Will I post more? Will there be late night Twitter updates? And how long will it be before somebody tries to shove in the bed next to me?

And will my marriage and my children survive the trauma?